Turns out NASA didn’t thoroughly follow their guidelines for preventing contamination on other planets. At least, not leading up to the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission on November 26.
Curiosity, the “largest and most advanced rover ever sent to the Red Planet,” almost made it into space without a hitch. But a decision regarding a set of drill bits means it didn’t quite meet NASA’s planetary protection procedures.
Accidentally contaminating a planet with microbes from Earth could make it difficult for scientists to uncover new, “native life” on other planets; without such strict procedures, how could we be sure that the so-called “new life” didn’t just hitch a ride from Earth?
Fortunately, contamination from this particular mission shouldn’t be a problem — any stray microbes would be unlikely to survive the conditions of Mars. This does, however, underline the need for constant vigilance in our unending search for life on other planets.
Who knows? Perhaps life on Earth began in a similar fashion.
The Curiosity rover is currently en route to Mars, and is scheduled to arrive at the Gale Crater (pictured above) in August, 2012. Its mission is not to search for life, but rather to “assess Mars’s habitability.”